Lower Federal Courts

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Federal courts are where the 99% and the 1% stand as equals before the law.
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Yes, the Supreme Court is important, but so are the lower federal courts.
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Courts Matter: The Impact on Real People

February 21, 2012

Courts play a critical role for our nation and our communities.

  • All Americans count on being able to “get their day in court.”
  • Court delays damage small businesses, whether they are seeking to vindicate their rights as plaintiffs or to put a lawsuit behind them.
  • Courts – the infrastructure of justice – are just as important to the rule of law as roads and bridges are to transportation.  Without enough judges, that infrastructure is crumbling.
  • Making our courts fully functional is an issue of good government.

Federal judges are required to give priority to criminal cases over civil ones.  Since the number of criminal cases has surged over the past several years – a 70% increase in the past decade – judges are forced to delay the civil cases, often for years. This means long delays for Americans seeking justice in cases involving:

  • discrimination
  • civil rights
  • predatory lending practices
  • consumer fraud
  • immigrant rights
  • environment
  • government benefits
  • business contracts
  • mergers
  • copyright infringement

Many plaintiffs are forced into inadequate settlements and small businesses are pressured to make unnecessary settlements to end the expense and uncertainty of litigation.

  • Example:  In Colorado, Amy Bullock sued a truck manufacturer in 2008, saying a faulty design had caused her husband’s death.  The judge has delayed the trial twice to handle all his criminal cases, and now her trial won’t even start until March 2012 at the earliest.

A Serious Vacancy Crisis is Damaging the Federal Court System

Nearly 160 million people live in circuits or districts with a courtroom vacancy that could have been filled last year, if the Republicans were not preventing votes.  This is the longest period of historically high vacancy rates on the federal judiciary in the last 35 years.

There are now 20 nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee who are waiting for a simple up-or-down vote from the Senate:

  • 18 were approved by the Judiciary Committee with very strong bipartisan support, and 13 were approved without any opposition at all.
  • 11 have been waiting for three months or more for a vote from the full Senate.
  • 10 are nominated to fill vacancies classified as judicial emergencies.
  • 15 of the 20 are women or people of color and one is an openly gay man.

George W. Bush’s judicial nominees received floor votes very soon after committee approval, on average:

  • Circuit court nominees: 30 days (Bush at this point in his term) vs. 135 days (Obama)
  • District court nominees: 23 days (Bush at this point in his term) vs. 91 days (Obama)
  • Both combined:  24 days (Bush at this point in his term) vs. 100 days (Obama)

Harsh Light of Exposure Makes Senate GOP Crumble

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans were harshly criticized for filibustering a highly qualified Cuban American with no committee opposition nominated for a seat on the Eleventh Circuit. Yesterday, they doubled down and set their sights on an unopposed district court nominee, Jesse Furman of New York. As we noted yesterday, the absurdity of the move cannot be overstated. The Senate GOP wasn’t just moving the goalposts, they were moving the entire football field.

It appears that the barrage of deserved criticism they received for this outrageous escalation in their war against the American judiciary has had an effect: It was just announced that the cloture petition will be vitiated (i.e., withdrawn). More than five months after Furman was approved without opposition by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will finally get his day on the Senate floor. In turn, assuming he is confirmed, more New Yorkers will get their day in court.

This is a victory for every American who wants to protect our nation’s judicial system.

PFAW

Jill Pryor Nominated to the 11th Circuit

President Obama has announced the nomination of Jill Pryor to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor would fill a vacancy that has been declared an emergency by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Pryor's legal skills are recognized by her peers. The Best Lawyers in America recognized her from 2009-2011, and Georgia Super Lawyers selected her as one of the "Top 100 Super Lawyers" in 2010 and 2011. In addition, she has served as president of the Georgia Association of Women Lawyers, as well as on the Georgia State Bar's Board of Governors.

Her peers are not alone in recognizing Pryor's qualifications. Georgia's Republican senators have both stated that she is qualified for a lifetime judicial appointment. In a January 24 letter to President Obama, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson recommended three attorneys to fill judicial vacancies in Georgia. They recommended Pryor for one of the two vacant seats in the Northern District of Georgia, but President Obama recognized that she has the skills and experience needed to serve on the Eleventh Circuit Court.

This seat has been vacant since August of 2010. We hope that Sens. Chambliss and Isakson, who clearly recognize Pryor's qualifications and judicial temperament, quickly give their approval for the Judiciary Committee to proceed to examine the nomination.

PFAW

Ohio Judicial Nominee Demonstrates Bipartisan Support

President Obama has gone out of his way to nominate to the federal bench highly qualified people who have earned the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike. That was clear in yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearing for Jeffrey Helmick to serve as a judge in the Northern District of Ohio.

That Helmick was nominated by Obama and recommended by Ohio's Sen. Sherrod Brown makes clear his support from Democrats. He was originally recommended to Brown and then-Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican, by a bipartisan committee. Rob Portman was elected to replace Voinovich in 2010, he has approved of Helmick’s nomination moving forward.

At the hearing, Sen. Brown discussed the strong support that state Republicans have offered the nominee.  For instance, Jack Zouhary, a 2006 George W. Bush nominee, wrote in support:

You will find no better candidate than Jeff. He possesses the intelligence, the passion for our justice system, and the necessary temperament and people skills to be an outstanding district court judge.

Similar praise has come from Mark Wagoner, the Republican who chairs the Ohio's Senate's Judiciary Committee. Sen. Brown read an excerpt from Wagoner's letter of support:

[Helmick] is someone who has stood for principles, litigated honestly, and ably defended our constitutional system of government. These types of traits would make Mr. Helmick an outstanding federal judge.

Helmick should be confirmed quickly. But if the growing backlog of nominees languishing on the Senate floor isn't cleared up, Ohioans' access to justice will be at risk.

PFAW

Yet Another Filibuster: GOP Ignores Goalposts, Moves Entire Football Field

Senate Republicans – already being condemned for their unprecedented obstruction of highly qualified judicial nominees with strong bipartisan support – today responded to that criticism by escalating their partisan obstruction to even more extremes. Today, after finally overcoming the four-month obstruction of an unopposed circuit court nominee, Senate Democrats were forced to file cloture on the nomination of an unopposed district court nominee, one who worked for and has the support of Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey: Jesse Furman, nominated to the Southern District of New York.

It would be hard to overstate just how absurd this is. When George W. Bush was president, Democrats routinely approved District Court nominees, frequently without even a recorded vote.

Adding to the absurdity of the filibuster, Republicans have given no reason to vote against Furman's confirmation. He is a respected lawyer who has devoted his legal career to public service, serving under both Democratic and Republican administrations. After law school, he clerked for Justice David Souter, Judge Michael Mukasey (a Reagan nominee to the Southern District of New York) and José A. Cabranes (a Clinton nomine to the Second Circuit). He worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York during the George W. Bush Administration. For two years during that time, he was detailed to work as Counselor to Mukasey, who had by then become Attorney General under President Bush. In 2009, he returned to the Southern District of New York to become Deputy Chief Appellate Attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office.

One might think Mukasey's strong support for the nomination would give Republicans reason not to filibuster. He wrote this of Furman: "All I can hope to add is my own belief that he is a person to whom one can entrust decisions that are consequential to the lives of people and to the general welfare of the populace, with confidence that they will be made wisely and fairly ... and I urge that he be confirmed."

Mukasey is not alone. The ABA has analyzed his record and found him qualified. A unanimous Judiciary Committee agreed.

There are currently six judicial vacancies in the Southern District of New York. Furman's nomination to fill one of those vacancies has been pending on the Senate floor for five months now.

This latest filibuster is an outrage. Republicans haven't just moved the goal posts. They've moved the entire stadium. The American people deserve so much better than this.

PFAW

End the Filibuster of Judge Jordán

With Republican obstruction of qualified consensus judicial nominees showing no sign of abating, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has filed cloture on the nomination of Adalberto José Jordán to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The vote to break the Republican filibuster is scheduled for Monday at 5:30.

Jordán is one of the 18 nominees stuck pending on the Senate floor because Republicans refuse to allow a yes-or-no vote to be scheduled. He received the highest possible rating from the American Bar Association, with a unanimous panel finding him well qualified. Judiciary Committee members who looked over his record agreed, voting unanimously to advance his nomination.

Senator Marco Rubio – Jordán's home state senator and a fellow Cuban American – strongly supports the nomination. As he told the committee, "I think his experience and his resume will speak for itself. ... As a community, we're very proud of Judge Jordán's nomination and we look forward to his appointment."

Jordán immigrated from Cuba when he was six and is the quintessential American success story. Since 1999, he has served ably as a federal district court judge in Miami, where he has presided over nearly 200 trials on a wide range of civil and criminal matters.

The Circuit that he would join desperately needs this vacancy filled, so much so that the Administrative Office of the United States Court has formally declared it a judicial emergency. In other words, there are so many cases and so few judges that Americans are not able to get their day in court.

This nomination has been languishing on the Senate floor since October 13. That was four months ago. Republicans have absolutely no excuse for this latest obstruction. Hats off to Sen. Reid for "calling the question" on this critical nomination. Next we need to turn our attention to the other 17 nominees on the Senate's calendar and the other nominees who will be reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee despite the Republicans' efforts to slow walk nominations in Committee as well.

PFAW

The Mechanism of Obstruction Continues

Before Senate Republicans graciously allowed a vote this afternoon on one of the 19 long-pending judicial nominations – just one, mind you – they did something this morning, that, unfortunately has become all too routine in their relentless efforts to slow-walk judicial nominations: They needlessly delayed committee votes on four additional highly qualified nominees. Republicans won't even let them advance to the floor to languish there, but are delaying them in committee for no reason.

As they have done for all but five of President Obama's judicial nominees, committee Republicans this morning exercised their option to "hold over" (i.e., delay) votes on judicial nominees. The routine use of this hold, without explanation, without regard to actual questions about the nominee, and almost without exception, is unprecedented. And while the delay, likely to be one week, is not by itself enormous, it has become a predictable component of the overall mechanism of obstruction that Senate Republicans have created to keep our nation's courtrooms from functioning effectively for the American people.

Three of the four vacant seats are judicial emergencies, and the three nominees from states with Republican senators have those senators' strong support.

As PFAW has written before:

No matter who the nominee is, no matter how qualified, no matter if confirmation is needed to address a judicial emergency, all the nominees [who are held over in committee] have something in common: They were nominated by a Democratic president, and that is all the reason Republicans need to obstruct the process and sabotage the judicial branch of the United States government.

So the fact that the bottleneck at the Senate floor didn't get worse today is hardly cause to celebrate.

PFAW
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